Obama, the black race, and Africa

November 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Kenneth Amaeshi

Obama’s image is malleable. He has come to represent and mean different things to different people. To some he is a socialist, a democrat, a freedom fighter, a leader, and a president. To others, he is an outsider, a black man, a spineless leader, an anti-Christ, and a representation of many things anti-America. Surprisingly, there are many more views of Obama lurking around out there; what is not surprising is that these views are constructed, re-constructed, and consumed in many different ways.

Undoubtedly, Obama gets massive support from the blacks – both inside and outside America. In these different locations, Obama means and represents different things. For the average black American, he may represent an aspiration and a realisation that a black man is the president of the most powerful country on earth. It can be seen as a dream come true; a re-imagination of a reality that once seemed far-fetched. He may also symbolise and embody the success of the freedom struggle of the black man in a foreign land. This American representation of Obama is likely to resonate well with many black people outside the shores of Africa and in other developed economies like the United Kingdom and the rest of Western Europe.

On the contrary, the Obama phenomenon in Africa, as one would imagine, does not share such similarities with the Obama of black Americans and Europeans. It neither represents an aspiration nor a freedom struggle from non-blacks. It is far from those. In the main, one might be inclined to interpret it as an outlet of a kind – something akin to a catharsis of those who for a long time have been bruised by bad governance and inept leadership. It is a psychological participation in the freedom and good leadership they very much miss in the continent; a view that the black race has something to offer to humanity after all. No matter how short lived, Obamamania comes across as a feeling that will always be entertained, fed and cherished, as long as the memory can sustain it.

In addition to his phenomenal attributes, Obama is a master orator.  What probably would rattle his distant brethren in Africa is his ability to wrap his views of America around some identifiable ideology and vision for the future. In his recent victory speech, he saw a united America where blacks, whites, rich, poor, gays, straights, religious, non-religious, et cetera, shared the vision of a united society – a patriotic acceptance to be in it with and for all. Supposedly, the speech was watched and listened to live by many. Thanks to the wide and deep penetration of the internet and mobile telephony in Africa. As the speech went on with passion, emotion, eloquence and gravitas, one couldn’t but wonder if his extended relatives in Africa can think in the same way. Do African leaders and politicians have the ability to ideate and idealise? Do they have the ability to envision and create a future? Can they ever lead with vision and hope? What is wrong with Africa and Africans? These are very strange but real questions.

Unfortunately, Africa has come to represent the Dark Continent of David Hume – an 18th century Scottish philosopher – in many ways. Africa is the undisputed global face of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, sickness and cruelty. In some ways, it comes across as a jungle mutilated by self-inflicted wounds. Despite its horrible and pitiable situation, it is seen as the context of the next wave of economic activities. Africa has significant natural resources to support the grinding machine of the global capitalist system. Pitiably, Africa has the population, but lacks sufficient human capital required to participate in, and benefit from the fruits of globalisation. Western and now Eastern multinational corporations and entrepreneurs understand the opportunities in Africa – opportunities which sadly often elude the consciousness of many African elites.

Despite their contributions to Africa, foreign firms in the continent are sometimes looked upon with great suspicion. They are often perceived as economic raiders, who are mainly interested in repatriating wealth to their home countries. They are sometimes accused of doing very little to empower their host countries, being reputed for exerting negative influences on local politics and the environment. This space which was once inhabited by Western firms has now attracted the attention of Eastern firms interested in African natural resources to support their rapid economic growth. The latter are often reputed for the use of cheap labour and have often been accused of turning a blind eye on human right issues. In both cases, Africa becomes a victim of exploitation and expropriation by the business elites (indigenous and foreign firms), and the political elites. In some instances, the business and political elites selfishly connive to further plunge the continent into the abyss of self-destruction. To reverse this trend requires enlightened citizenship and benevolent leadership in the interim and strong institutions, in the future.

The slow rate of socio-economic development in Africa, together with its consequent implications – e.g. high rate of poverty, malnutrition, infant mortality, and poor infrastructure, still remains a sore on the conscience of the world.  This ugly situation in Africa persists because most economic and political policies in the continent are short of clearly articulated philosophies and ideas, as well as the enlightenment and moral character to envision a progressive society. As such, their policies, where they exist, remain disjointed with very negligible impacts. For Africa to rise up to the demands and challenges of the globalised world order, her leaders, economic elites, and citizens need to think inwardly and deeper than they currently do. Education will definitely help here. However, I do not mean mere certificates; there are many of those in Africa already. The continent needs genuine education that will truly liberate the minds of Africans from gross ignorance.

As Obama said on one of his trips to Africa, the continent needs strong institutions and not strong men. This couldn’t have been better said. As Africans reflect upon and consume the Obama construct, may they be reminded that their destinies and fate lie in their hands; and only that realisation anchored on a better vision for the future will set them free. Obamamania will always be a façade and will not liberate Africa. This is very sad but true.

Kenneth Amaeshi is an Associate Professor (Reader) in Strategy and International Business at the University of Edinburgh, a visiting professor at the Lagos Business School, and a member of  the Thought Leadership Forum, Nigeria. www.kennethamaeshi.com


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